Ruling: The feds didn’t stiff water users in last drought

June 10, 2022
by Lois Henry
When the federal government built the Central Valley Project in the 1930s, it took San Joaquin River water from current users and move it south via the Friant-Kern Canal to users from Fresno to Arvin. In "exchange," it promised the original river users water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. In 2014, it couldn't get water from the delta so it took it from the Friant users. They sued saying the government had breached its contract. On June 6, a judge ruled there was no breach.
Lois Henry

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The federal government did not breach its contract when it gave water users, including the City of Fresno, a zero water allocation in the extreme drought year of 2014, according to a ruling issued June 6 in Federal Claims Court.

It may not seem fair, Judge Armando Bonilla wrote in his ruling, and “To be clear, a zero allocation for the Friant contractors was harsh,” but the fact is the Friant division of the Central Valley Project is outranked by superior water rights held by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors.

“At all times the Exchange Contractors have a superior claim to CVP water than do the Friant Contractors,” Bonilla wrote.

A second, similar claim was filed by the plaintiffs in 2015 after the Bureau of Reclamation again issued Friant contractors a zero allocation in favor of the Exchange Contractors. That claim was stayed pending a final judgement in this case. But considering Bonilla’s ruling, a different outcome on that claim appears unlikely.

“The city is disappointed with the ruling and we disagree with its reasoning,” said Georgeanne White, Fresno City Manager. “We always knew that an appeal was inevitable by one side or the other. We’ll be discussing with the other plaintiffs on the path forward.”

In a normal year, Fresno receives 60,000 acre feet through its Friant contract. That amount represents nearly one quarter of the city’s total annual supply of 256,574 from a variety of sources.

Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority, which joined Fresno in the lawsuit, said the plaintiffs are still reviewing the judge’s decision and weighing options.

“I can’t really comment other than to say the ruling likely won’t have any effect on deliveries this water year,” Phillips said.

Friant contractors received a 15% allocation this year. Thanks to late spring rains in northern California, particularly in the American River watershed, that percentage appears solid. “And we may have the option to go a little above that,” Phillips said.

Though the lawsuit was directed at the Bureau of Reclamation, not Exchange Contractors, the group was happy with the ruling.

“We’re glad the courts upheld long standing agreements that provide our region with water for ag,” said Chris White, Executive Director of the Exchange Contractors Authority, which includes four agricultural water districts that cover 240,000 acres on the west side of the valley from Firebaugh up to Newman.

They became known as “Exchange Contractors,” when the federal government built the Central Valley Project in the 1930s.

The government took San Joaquin River water from existing users and moved it to farms and towns from Madera south to Arvin via the Friant-Kern Canal.

In “exchange,” the federal government promised the original river users it would provide them water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

During the extreme drought years of 2014 and 2015, the government couldn’t get enough water out of the delta to satisfy its obligation to the Exchange Contractors.

Instead, it took San Joaquin River water out of Millerton and delivered that to Exchange Contractors, leaving the Friant side of the project with a zero allocation.

– Danielle Bergstrom, with Fresnoland, contributed to this story

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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